For profit or people?

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When McNally Smith College of Music in downtown St. Paul ceased all operations without notice in December 2017, the lives of about 400 students were upended. The abrupt closure meant students did not get any counseling regarding how to continue their schooling. Students with on-campus jobs didn’t get paid.

Two things these students can count on: First, they will be on the hook for their student loans (as bankruptcy can only erase debt for the operators). Second, as McNally Smith is not a regionally accredited college, very few, if any credits will transfer to another school.

Sadly, a for-profit college shutting down and creating turmoil for its current and former students is hardly news. In the recent past, Globe University/Minnesota School of Business and ITT Technical Institute have closed (or been shut down) with students shouldering most of the burden.

McNally Smith’s demise is surprising because it had been in operation since 1985 (as MusicTech until 2001) and been a model of how a for-profit should fill a niche in the educational landscape.

With a faculty that included local luminaries such as Dessa and Jeremy Messersmith, the school was geared toward students interested in modern music. Majors included drumming and bass performance. Free from bureaucratic regulations, instruction could change rapidly to meet the needs of industry. (And what industry outside of Silicon Valley evolves more rapidly than music?) In 2009, the school developed the first nationally accredited diploma program for hip-hop.

This is not something I think a publicly funded college could—or even should—do.

Of course, there is one other thing I can’t imagine a publicly funded college would do—declare bankruptcy and completely disappear in less than a week.

The stability of public colleges

A guy I know (a friend’s husband) attended MCTC to become a sound engineer, a skill now in demand as more schools want musical performances recorded. Shortly after graduating he got a job as a sound engineer to supplement his income as a professional musician.

It’s a good fit for him right now, but if he wants to continue his education, his elective coursework in Native American history and social science from an accredited college will most likely transfer to his next school.

While it doesn’t have the allure of learning poetry and pop music with Dessa and Messersmith, the sound engineering program meets a need that serves the public. In order to make sure they do so, technical and community colleges tend to move more slowly than their primary competition for students, their for-profit counterparts.

But that doesn’t mean they are not responsive to the needs of their communities. The community and technical colleges in the Minnesota State system have a long history of tailoring programs locally. In fact, until the 1970s, technical colleges were controlled by local school districts, which had a very vested interest in seeing students succeed. While the funding and oversight has changed, the responsiveness to the local community has remained.

The empty promises of for-profits

With much more money at stake in the form of student loans, profiteers have every incentive to deceive and prey upon the desire people have to improve their lives. Even the more reputable for-profit business schools offer an array of programs to generate interest and enrollment, regardless of realistic job prospects. When I worked in a halfway house and met about a dozen clients who were in no shape to enroll in any college, it became obvious to me that these schools view students as nothing more than bags of cash.

That said, I still believe private for-profits can serve higher education in concert with public institutions.

The solution is twofold: By drastically reducing the amount of student loan dollars, we can decrease the incentive for fraud. And the Office of Higher Education can provide better oversight of the niche colleges that want to operate and ensure they serve the public and keep their promises.

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